Abstinence = Epic Fail

All baptized men and women, single or married, are called to the vocation of chastity, not abstinence. But our urban Christian voices struggle to articulate this doctrine of sexual wholeness. It’s not about saying ‘no’ but saying ‘yes.’

On February 10, 2012, rapper Too $hort posted a video on XXLMag.com, a hip-hop website, where he gave “Fatherly Advice” to middle-school and high-school boys on sexuality. The disgusting, misogynistic, dehumanizing, and graphic nature of his comments do not bear repeating here, but his comments made me wonder about the consequences of reducing sexuality to merely a physical concept in the absence of virtue. Thankfully, the video was removed and Too $hort offered an apology for offending people. The rapper, however, offered no apology for the way in which he advised young men to touch the bodies of young girls.

The whole episode reminded me that I am not convinced that Christians do a good job of telling young people what to do with their bodies other than say “no” to them. As a result, I am beginning to wonder if abstinence programs are even helpful for developing moral maturity. While abstinence rightly places sexual intercourse within its proper context — marriage — it fails to construct a moral theology of the body. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Christians to return to teaching chastity.

Some of the early teachings on chastity date back to church Fathers like Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 A.D.) who made a serious case for bodily self-control (some argue he went too far). The teaching has faded, but some contemporary authors continue to make a case for chastity. For example, Duke Divinity School scholar Lauren Winner sought to reintroduce the ancient subject for a postmodern generation in her 2006 book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity and Bible teacher Paul Tripp offers a challenging perspective on the reality of sex and commitment in his 2010 book, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage.

For the sake of brevity, the Roman Catholic Catechism provides a useful and succinct introduction to chastity that is helpful even if one does not agree with Catholic doctrine (I will adapt the teaching in this article). The Catholic teaching begins with the recognition that we are sexual beings whose “physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life.” That is, the mutual support between the sexes is lived out as we recognized are complimentary need for mutuality.

The vocation of chastity, then, is defined as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.” Chastity as a vocation does not require that one divorce one’s body from one’s passions but that one strive for maturity in the virtue of self-control — a skill needed before and after marriage (Prov. 25:28; 1 Cor. 7:5; Gal. 5:23; Titus 2:6; 1 Pet. 5:8). In fact, “the chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. … Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” What develops and matures young people in their moral reasoning and virtue is the conscious and free choice to use one’s body for the good. Not simply to say “no” to sin but “yes” to holiness (Deut. 7:6). Moreover, we are not to be mastered by any sin but are called to intentionally pursue holiness (1 Cor. 6:12). Abstinence does not teach this virtue.

For Christian young people, the knowledge of one’s union with Christ, a commitment to obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, fidelity to prayer, and a daily requesting and reliance on the Holy Spirit, and so on, gives one what is needed to inaugurate one into the vocation of chastity. The active work of the Holy Spirit enables us to permeate the passions and appetites with mature moral reasoning that is consistent with what the Bible teaches.

“Self-mastery is a long and exacting work,” says the Catechism. “One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.” Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of freedom. Our union with Christ in the pursuit of chastity enables us, then, to be fully human. Chastity leads those who practice it to become witnesses to their neighbors of God’s fidelity, loving kindness, and the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). The call to chastity is simply a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Chastity is for everyone.

All baptized men and women, single or married, are called to the vocation of chastity. Sexual wholeness is living according to God’s articulated design for human beings and applies to married couples and singles in the same way. Abstinence does not teach this. As a man who can relate to sexual temptation (Heb. 4:15), but who never sinned against His call to a chaste life, Jesus Christ is the perfect example of living out the vocation of chastity.

Growth in chastity includes the reality of failure, repentance, and renewal. This is why the gospel and work of the Holy Spirit is so central to the sustaining of such a vocation and why it is unsustainable in the best possible way outside of one’s union with Christ. Chastity is violated with things like adultery, pornography, rape, sex outside of marriage, sexual abuse, and so on.

In the end, if chastity were a dominant teaching in urban America, it would not only address sex before marriage but would create a culture of sexual virtue that honors God, best fits with how God designed human beings to live, and would serve as a powerful example of what is means to live knowing God’s Word is true. Abstinence education is well intentioned but fails to develop young people into morally mature followers of Christ. True love does not wait. True love loves God and neighbor by saying “yes” to God’s better way (Matt. 22:36-40).

About the author, Anthony B. Bradley

Dr. Anthony B. Bradley is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King’s College in New York City and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Black and Tired and Liberating Black Theology. Visit his website, The Institute, and follow him on Twitter @drantbradley.
  1. I think this argument assumes a limited and narrow explanation of abstinence teaching. There is second and third generation abstinence instruction that goes beyond the “just say no” and “wait till marriage” mantras of the past. If one is considering the old paradigm, then yes I agree, it’s not sufficient. But more recent efforts are more comprehensive.

  2. Pingback: Here’s an Introduction to Chastity: “If chastity were a dominant teaching in urban America…” | research.uo

  3. I appreciate the intents behind this article on many levels. Although I feel that it fails to address some of the most important aspects of this issue, there is much to commend in this article. Because I am a stickler for keeping things in historical/contextual and theological perspective there were some things I wish the article addressed more clearly.

    One of them is the long and robust Christian tradition of teaching on chastity in both East and West and the Protestant reticence to wholeheartedly embrace that tradition. There are many reasons why Protestants have not developed as rich of a moral tradition concerning chastity as have their Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters.

    One of them is a result of our emphasis on sola scriptura. While no one will argue against the positive good that solar scriptura has produced in terms of biblical scholarship and preaching, in my opinion the idea that Christians base their theology on scripure alone has proven not true. We all live in a specific cultural context and make a great number of decisions concerning our life based on prevailing cultural assumptions and philosophical propositions whether we are aware of it or not.

    The great moral theology that produced the ideas espoused in this article are the result of a synthesis of scriptural exegesis, church tradition, including time proven spiritual disciplines, and the natural law tradition. Because we Protestants have tried to limit the discussion to the Bible, we have missed out on a great conversation concerning this issue.

    Perhaps that is why we have tried to pretend that the only options at times have been dichotomies such as whether or not to teach sex education in schools, whether or not to make contraception available to the public and other issues that are short sighted. As the article stated, the real issue is not theology via negativa (abstinence) but rather positive theology (chastity).

    There is a good book by a Reformed Protestant, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung entitled “Gilttering Vices: A New Look At the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies”. Please read her chapter “Lust: Smoke, Fire and Ashes”. It contains many of the commendable issues discussed in this brief article but extends them in greater detail and depth. Thanks Urban Faith for printing this article. We need more like them to help urban Christians as we sort through the cultural chaos around us and seek to like a more holistic Christian life.

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  5. This is an excellent, excellent article. I fully agree that all of us are called to the vocation of chastity–whether we are single or married. Of course, chastity means different things for the different states in life. For example, as a married individual, I am also called to chasity–I may have only one spouse and must reserve the act of marriage for, well, my marriage.

    As a Catholic, I appreciate Dr. Bradley’s references to the early Church Fathers and to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And as an African American, I appreciate such charitable and yet strong voices for truth in the African-American community. Thank you, Dr. Bradley.

    And, as a total non-sequitur, I love your name. One of my sons is named Anthony, and my brother’s middle name is Bradley.